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How to Select a Research Topic


    

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Writing research papers

Quick tabs to parts of a research paper (this page)

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Materials & Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Literature Cited

Other resources

  • Common errors in student research papers
  • Selected writing rules

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Writing Research Papers

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank
sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
— Gene Fowler

A major goal of this course is the development of effective
technical writing skills. To help you become an accomplished
writer, you will prepare several research papers based
upon the studies completed in lab. Our research
papers are not typical "lab reports." In a
teaching lab a lab report might be nothing more than
answers to a set of questions. Such an assignment hardly
represents the kind of writing you might be doing in
your eventual career.

Written and oral communications skills are probably
the most universal qualities sought by graduate and professional
schools as well as by employers. You alone are responsible
for developing such skills to a high level.

Resources for learning technical writing

Before you begin your first writing assignment, please
consult all of the following resources, in order to gain
the most benefit from the experience.

  • General form of a typical research
    article
  • Specific
    guidelines (if any) for the assignment – see the
    writeups on individual lab studies
  • McMillan, VE. "Writing Papers in the Biological
    Sciences, Third Ed." New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s,
    2001. ISBN 0-312-25857-7 (REQUIRED for Bioc 211, 311,
    recommended for other science courses that include
    writing)
  • Writing
    portfolio examples (pdf)

As you polish up your writing skills please make use
of the following resources

  • Instructor feedback on previous assignments
  • Common errors in student
    research papers
  • Selected writing rules (somewhat
    less serious than the other resources)

For Biosciences majors the general guidelines apply
to future course work, as can be seen by examining the guidelines
for the advanced experimental sciences research paper (Bioc
311).

General form of a research paper

An objective of organizing a research paper is to allow
people to read your work selectively. When I research
a topic, I may be interested in just the methods, a specific
result, the interpretation, or perhaps I just want to
see a summary of the paper to determine if it is relevant
to my study. To this end, many journals require the following
sections, submitted in the order listed, each section
to start on a new page. There are variations of course.
Some journals call for a combined results and discussion,
for example, or include materials and methods after the
body of the paper. The well known journal Science does
away with separate sections altogether, except for the
abstract.

Your papers are to adhere to the form and style required
for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, requirements
that are shared by many journals in the life sciences.

General style

Specific editorial requirements for submission of a
manuscript will always supercede instructions in these
general guidelines.

To make a paper readable

  • Print or type using a 12 point standard font, such
    as Times, Geneva, Bookman, Helvetica, etc.
  • Text should be double spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" paper
    with 1 inch margins, single sided
  • Number pages consecutively
  • Start each new section on a new page
  • Adhere to recommended page limits

Mistakes to avoid

  • Placing a heading at the bottom of a page with the
    following text on the next page (insert a page break!)
  • Dividing a table or figure – confine each figure/table
    to a single page
  • Submitting a paper with pages out of order

In all sections of your paper

  • Use normal prose including articles ("a", "the,"
    etc.)
  • Stay focused on the research topic of the paper
  • Use paragraphs to separate each important point (except
    for the abstract)
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph
  • Present your points in logical order
  • Use present tense to report well accepted facts –
    for example, ‘the grass is green’
  • Use past tense to describe specific results – for
    example, ‘When weed killer was applied, the grass was
    brown’
  • Avoid informal wording, don’t address the reader
    directly, and don’t use jargon, slang terms, or superlatives
  • Avoid use of superfluous pictures – include only
    those figures necessary to presenting results

Title Page

Select an informative title as illustrated in the examples
in your writing portfolio example package. Include the
name(s) and address(es) of all authors, and date submitted.
"Biology lab #1" would not be an informative title, for
example.

Abstract

The summary should be two hundred words or less. See the
examples in the writing portfolio package.

General intent

An abstract is a concise single paragraph summary of
completed work or work in progress. In a minute or less
a reader can learn the rationale behind the study, general
approach to the problem, pertinent results, and important
conclusions or new questions.

Writing an abstract

Write your summary after the rest of the paper is completed.
After all, how can you summarize something that is not
yet written? Economy of words is important throughout
any paper, but especially in an abstract. However, use
complete sentences and do not sacrifice readability for
brevity. You can keep it concise by wording sentences
so that they serve more than one purpose. For example, "In
order to learn the role of protein synthesis in early
development of the sea urchin, newly fertilized embryos
were pulse-labeled with tritiated leucine, to provide
a time course of changes in synthetic rate, as measured
by total counts per minute (cpm)." This sentence
provides the overall question, methods, and type of analysis,
all in one sentence. The writer can now go directly to
summarizing the results.

Summarize the study, including the following elements
in any abstract. Try to keep the first two items to no
more than one sentence each.

  • Purpose of the study – hypothesis, overall question,
    objective
  • Model organism or system and brief description of
    the experiment
  • Results, including specific data – if the
    results are quantitative in nature, report quantitative
    data; results of any statistical analysis shoud be
    reported
  • Important conclusions or questions that follow from
    the experiment(s)

Style:

  • Single paragraph, and concise
  • As a summary of work done, it is always written in
    past tense
  • An abstract should stand on its own, and not refer
    to any other part of the paper such as a figure or
    table
  • Focus on summarizing results – limit background information
    to a sentence or two, if absolutely necessary
  • What you report in an abstract must be consistent
    with what you reported in the paper
  • Corrrect spelling, clarity of sentences and phrases,
    and proper reporting of quantities (proper units, significant
    figures) are just as important in an abstract as they
    are anywhere else

Introduction

Your introductions should not exceed two pages (double
spaced, typed). See the examples in the writing portfolio
package.

General intent

The purpose of an introduction is to aquaint the reader
with the rationale behind the work, with the intention
of defending it. It places your work in a theoretical
context, and enables the reader to understand and appreciate
your objectives.

Writing an introduction

The abstract is the only text in a research paper to
be written without using paragraphs in order to separate
major points. Approaches vary widely, however for our
studies the following approach can produce an effective
introduction.

  • Describe the importance (significance) of the study
    – why was this worth doing in the first place? Provide
    a broad context.
  • Defend the model – why did you use this particular
    organism or system? What are its advantages? You might
    comment on its suitability from a theoretical point
    of view as well as indicate practical reasons for using
    it.
  • Provide a rationale. State your specific hypothesis(es)
    or objective(s), and describe the reasoning that led
    you to select them.
  • Very briefy describe the experimental design and
    how it accomplished the stated objectives.

Style:

  • Use past tense except when referring to established
    facts. After all, the paper will be submitted after
    all of the work is completed.
  • Organize your ideas, making one major point with
    each paragraph. If you make the four points listed
    above, you will need a minimum of four paragraphs.
  • Present background information only as needed in
    order support a position. The reader does not want
    to read everything you know about a subject.
  • State the hypothesis/objective precisely – do not
    oversimplify.
  • As always, pay attention to spelling, clarity and
    appropriateness of sentences and phrases.

Materials and Methods

There is no specific page limit, but a key concept is to
keep this section as concise as you possibly can. People
will want to read this material selectively. The reader
may only be interested in one formula or part of a procedure.
Materials and methods may be reported under separate subheadings within
this section
or can be incorporated together.

General intent

This should be the easiest section to write, but many students
misunderstand the purpose. The objective is to document all
specialized materials and general procedures, so that another
individual may use some or all of the methods in another study
or judge the scientific merit of your work.
It is not to be a step by step description of everything you
did, nor is a methods section a set of instructions. In particular,
it is not supposed to tell a story. By the way, your notebook
should contain all of the information that you need for this
section.

Writing a materials and methods section

Materials:

  • Describe materials separately only if the study is so complicated
    that it saves space this way.
  • Include specialized chemicals, biological materials, and
    any equipment or supplies that are not commonly found in
    laboratories.
  • Do not include commonly found supplies such as test tubes,
    pipet tips, beakers, etc., or standard lab equipment such
    as centrifuges, spectrophotometers, pipettors, etc.
  • If use of a specific type of equipment, a specific enzyme,
    or a culture from a particular supplier is critical to the
    success of the experiment, then it and the source should
    be singled out, otherwise no.
  • Materials may be reported in a separate paragraph or else
    they may be identified along with your procedures.
  • In biosciences we frequently work with solutions – refer
    to them by name and describe completely, including concentrations
    of all reagents, and pH of aqueous solutions, solvent if
    non-aqueous.

Methods:

  • See the examples in the writing portfolio package
  • Report the methodology (not details of each procedure that
    employed the same methodology)
  • Describe the mehodology completely, including such specifics
    as temperatures, incubation times, etc.
  • To be concise, present methods under headings devoted to
    specific procedures or groups of procedures
  • Generalize – report how procedures were done, not how they
    were specifically performed on a particular day. For example,
    report "samples were diluted to a final concentration
    of 2 mg/ml protein;" don’t report that "135 microliters
    of sample one was diluted with 330 microliters of buffer
    to make the protein concentration 2 mg/ml." Always think
    about what would be relevant to an investigator at another
    institution, working on his/her own project.
  • If well documented procedures were used, report the procedure
    by name, perhaps with reference, and that’s all. For example,
    the Bradford assay is well known. You need not report the
    procedure in full – just that you used a Bradford assay to
    estimate protein concentration, and identify what you used
    as a standard. The same is true for the SDS-PAGE method,
    and many other well known procedures in biology and biochemistry.

Style:

  • It is awkward or impossible to use active voice when documenting
    methods without using first person, which would focus the
    reader’s attention on the investigator rather than the work.
    Therefore when writing up the methods most authors use third
    person passive voice.
  • Use normal prose in this and in every other section of
    the paper – avoid informal lists, and use complete sentences.

What to avoid

  • Materials and methods are not a set of instructions.
  • Omit all explanatory information and background – save
    it for the discussion.
  • Omit information that is irrelevant to a third party, such
    as what color ice bucket you used, or which individual logged
    in the data.

Results

The page length of this section is set by the amount and types
of data to be reported. Continue to be concise, using figures
and tables, if appropriate, to present results most effectively.
See recommendations for content, below.

General intent

The purpose of a results section is to present and illustrate
your findings. Make this section a completely objective report
of the results, and save all interpretation for the discussion.

Writing a results section

IMPORTANT: You must clearly distinguish material that would
normally be included in a research article from any raw data
or other appendix material that would not be published. In
fact, such material should not be submitted at all unless requested
by the instructor.

Content

  • Summarize your findings in text and illustrate them, if
    appropriate, with figures and tables.
  • In text, describe each of your results, pointing the reader
    to observations that are most relevant.
  • Provide a context, such as by describing the question that
    was addressed by making a particular observation.
  • Describe results of control experiments and include observations
    that are not presented in a formal figure or table, if appropriate.
  • Analyze your data, then prepare the analyzed (converted)
    data in the form of a figure (graph), table, or in text form.

What to avoid

  • Do not discuss or interpret your results, report background
    information, or attempt to explain anything.
  • Never include raw data or intermediate calculations in
    a research paper.
  • Do not present the same data more than once.
  • Text should complement any figures or tables, not repeat
    the same information.
  • Please do not confuse figures with tables – there is a
    difference.

Style

  • As always, use past tense when you refer to your results,
    and put everything in a logical order.
  • In text, refer to each figure as "figure 1," "figure
    2," etc. ; number your tables as well (see the reference
    text for details)
  • Place figures and tables, properly numbered, in order at
    the end of the report (clearly distinguish them from any
    other material such as raw data, standard curves, etc.)
  • If you prefer, you may place your figures and tables appropriately
    within the text of your results section.

Figures and tables

  • Either place figures and tables within the text of the
    result, or include them in the back of the report (following
    Literature Cited) – do one or the other
  • If you place figures and tables at the end of the report,
    make sure they are clearly distinguished from any attached
    appendix materials, such as raw data
  • Regardless of placement, each figure must be numbered consecutively
    and complete with caption (caption goes under the figure)
  • Regardless of placement, each table must be titled, numbered
    consecutively and complete with heading (title with description
    goes above the table)
  • Each figure and table must be sufficiently complete that
    it could stand on its own, separate from text

Discussion

Journal guidelines vary. Space is so valuable in the Journal
of Biological Chemistry, that authors are asked to restrict discussions
to four pages or less, double spaced, typed. That works out to
one printed page. While you are learning to write effectively,
the limit will be extended to five typed pages. If you practice
economy of words, that should be plenty of space within which
to say all that you need to say.

General intent

The objective here is to provide an interpretation of your
results and support for all of your conclusions, using evidence
from your experiment and generally accepted knowledge, if appropriate.
The significance of findings should be clearly described.

Writing a discussion

Interpret your data in the discussion in appropriate depth.
This means that when you explain a phenomenon you must describe
mechanisms that may account for the observation. If your
results differ from your expectations, explain why that may
have happened. If your results agree, then describe the theory
that the evidence supported. It is never appropriate to simply
state that the data agreed with expectations, and let it drop
at that.

  • Decide if each hypothesis is supported, rejected, or if
    you cannot make a decision with confidence. Do not simply
    dismiss a study or part of a study as “inconclusive.”
  • Research papers are not accepted if the work is incomplete.
    Draw what conclusions you can based upon the results that
    you have, and treat the study as a finished work
  • You may suggest future directions, such as how the
    experiment might be modified to
    accomplish another objective.
  • Explain all of your observations as much as possible, focusing
    on mechanisms
    .
  • Decide if the experimental design adequately addressed
    the hypothesis, and whether or not it was properly controlled.
  • Try to offer alternative explanations if reasonable alternatives
    exist.
  • One experiment will not answer an overall question, so
    keeping the big picture in mind, where do you go next? The
    best studies open up new avenues of research. What questions
    remain?
  • Recommendations for specific papers will provide additional
    suggestions.

Style:

  • When you refer to information, distinguish data generated
    by your own studies from published information or from information
    obtained from other students (verb tense is an important
    tool for accomplishing that purpose).
  • Refer to work done by specific individuals (including yourself)
    in past tense.
  • Refer to generally accepted facts and principles in present
    tense. For example, “Doofus, in a 1989 survey, found that
    anemia in basset hounds was correlated with advanced
    age. Anemia is a condition in which there is insufficient
    hemoglobin in the blood.”

The biggest mistake that students make in discussions is to
present a superficial interpretation that more or less re-states
the results. It is necessary to suggest why results
came out as they did, focusing on the mechanisms behind the
observations.

Literature Cited

Please note that in the introductory laboratory course, you
will not be required to properly document sources of all of
your information. One reason is that your major source of information
is this website, and websites are inappropriate as primary
sources. Second, it is problematic to provide a hundred students
with equal access to potential reference materials. You may
nevertheless find outside sources, and you should cite any
articles that the instructor provides or that you find for
yourself.

List all literature cited in your paper, in alphabetical
order, by first author. In a proper research paper, only primary
literature is used (original research articles authored by
the original investigators). Be cautious about using web sites
as references – anyone can put just about anything on a web
site, and you have no sure way of knowing if it is truth
or fiction. If you are citing an on line journal, use the journal
citation (name, volume, year, page numbers). Some of your papers
may not require references, and if that is the case simply
state that "no
references were consulted."

Vietnamese translation: http://translate.coupofy.com/writing-research-papers/

Russian translation: http://blog.hightwall.com/reportform/


Copyright
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Visitors: to ensure that your message is not mistaken for
SPAM, please include the acronym “Bios211” in the subject line
of e-mail communications
Created by David R. Caprette ( [email protected] ), Rice University 25 Aug 95
Updated 11 Apr 16

The Center for Writing Studies

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    Writing Tips: Thesis Statements

    • Defining the Thesis Statement
    • Questions to Ask When Formulating Your Thesis

    Defining the Thesis Statement

    What is a thesis statement?

    Every paper you write should have a main point, a main idea, or central message. The argument(s) you make in your paper should reflect this main idea. The sentence that captures your position on this main idea is what we call a thesis statement.

    How long does it need to be?

    A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also make a comment about your position in relation to the topic. Your thesis statement should tell your reader what the paper is about and also help guide your writing and keep your argument focused.

    Questions to Ask When Formulating Your Thesis

    Where is your thesis statement?

    You should provide a thesis early in your essay — in the introduction, or in longer essays in the second paragraph — in order to establish your position and give your reader a sense of direction.

    Tip: In order to write a successful thesis statement:

    • Avoid burying a great thesis statement in the middle of a paragraph or late in the paper.
    • Be as clear and as specific as possible; avoid vague words.
    • Indicate the point of your paper but avoid sentence structures like, “The point of my paper is…”

    Is your thesis statement specific?

    Your thesis statement should be as clear and specific as possible. Normally you will continue to refine your thesis as you revise your argument(s), so your thesis will evolve and gain definition as you obtain a better sense of where your argument is taking you.

    Tip: Check your thesis:

    • Are there two large statements connected loosely by a coordinating conjunction (i.e. “and,” “but,” “or,” “for,” “nor,” “so,” “yet”)?
    • Would a subordinating conjunction help (i.e. “through,” “although,” “because,” “since”) to signal a relationship between the two sentences?
    • Or do the two statements imply a fuzzy unfocused thesis?
    • If so, settle on one single focus and then proceed with further development.

    Is your thesis statement too general?

    Your thesis should be limited to what can be accomplished in the specified number of pages. Shape your topic so that you can get straight to the “meat” of it. Being specific in your paper will be much more successful than writing about general things that do not say much. Don’t settle for three pages of just skimming the surface.

    The opposite of a focused, narrow, crisp thesis is a broad, sprawling, superficial thesis. Compare this original thesis (too general) with three possible revisions (more focused, each presenting a different approach to the same topic):

    • Original thesis:
      • There are serious objections to today’s horror movies.
    • Revised theses:
      • Because modern cinematic techniques have allowed filmmakers to get more graphic, horror flicks have desensitized young American viewers to violence.
      • The pornographic violence in “bloodbath” slasher movies degrades both men and women.
      • Today’s slasher movies fail to deliver the emotional catharsis that 1930s horror films did.

    Is your thesis statement clear?

    Your thesis statement is no exception to your writing: it needs to be as clear as possible. By being as clear as possible in your thesis statement, you will make sure that your reader understands exactly what you mean.

    Tip: In order to be as clear as possible in your writing:

    • Unless you’re writing a technical report, avoid technical language. Always avoid jargon, unless you are confident your audience will be familiar with it.
    • Avoid vague words such as “interesting,” “negative,” “exciting,” “unusual,” and “difficult.”
    • Avoid abstract words such as “society,” “values,” or “culture.”

    These words tell the reader next to nothing if you do not carefully explain what you mean by them. Never assume that the meaning of a sentence is obvious. Check to see if you need to define your terms (”socialism,” “conventional,” “commercialism,” “society”), and then decide on the most appropriate place to do so. Do not assume, for example, that you have the same understanding of what “society” means as your reader. To avoid misunderstandings, be as specific as possible.

    Compare the original thesis (not specific and clear enough) with the revised version (much more specific and clear):

    • Original thesis: Although the timber wolf is a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated. [if it’s so timid and gentle — why is it being exterminated?]
    • Revised thesis: Although the timber wolf is actually a timid and gentle animal, it is being systematically exterminated because people wrongfully believe it to be a fierce and cold-blooded killer.

    Does your thesis include a comment about your position on the issue at hand?

    The thesis statement should do more than merely announce the topic; it must reveal what position you will take in relation to that topic, how you plan to analyze/evaluate the subject or the issue. In short, instead of merely stating a general fact or resorting to a simplistic pro/con statement, you must decide what it is you have to say.

    Tips:

    • Avoid merely announcing the topic; your original and specific “angle” should be clear. In this way you will tell your reader why your take on the issue matters.
      • Original thesis: In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between fairy tales and early childhood.
      • Revised thesis: Not just empty stories for kids, fairy tales shed light on the psychology of young children.
    • Avoid making universal or pro/con judgments that oversimplify complex issues.
      • Original thesis: We must save the whales.
      • Revised thesis: Because our planet’s health may depend upon biological diversity, we should save the whales.
    • When you make a (subjective) judgment call, specify and justify your reasoning. “Just because” is not a good reason for an argument.
      • Original thesis: Socialism is the best form of government for Kenya.
      • Revised thesis: If the government takes over industry in Kenya, the industry will become more efficient.
    • Avoid merely reporting a fact. Say more than what is already proven fact. Go further with your ideas. Otherwise… why would your point matter?
      • Original thesis: Hoover’s administration was rocked by scandal.
      • Revised thesis: The many scandals of Hoover’s administration revealed basic problems with the Republican Party’s nominating process.

    Do not expect to come up with a fully formulated thesis statement before you have finished writing the paper. The thesis will inevitably change as you revise and develop your ideas—and that is ok! Start with a tentative thesis and revise as your paper develops.

    Is your thesis statement original?

    Avoid, avoid, avoid generic arguments and formula statements. They work well to get a rough draft started, but will easily bore a reader. Keep revising until the thesis reflects your real ideas.

    Tip: The point you make in the paper should matter:

    • Be prepared to answer “So what?” about your thesis statement.
    • Be prepared to explain why the point you are making is worthy of a paper. Why should the reader read it?

    Compare the following:

    • Original thesis:
      • There are advantages and disadvantages to using statistics. (a fill-in-the-blank formula)
    • Revised theses:
      • Careful manipulation of data allows a researcher to use statistics to support any claim she desires.
      • In order to ensure accurate reporting, journalists must understand the real significance of the statistics they report.
      • Because advertisers consciously and unconsciously manipulate data, every consumer should learn how to evaluate statistical claims.

    Avoid formula and generic words. Search for concrete subjects and active verbs, revising as many “to be” verbs as possible. A few suggestions below show how specific word choice sharpens and clarifies your meaning.

    • Original: “Society is…” [who is this “society” and what exactly is it doing?]
    • Revised: “Men and women will learn how to…,” “writers can generate…,” “television addicts may chip away at…,” “American educators must decide…,” “taxpayers and legislators alike can help fix…”
    • Original: “the media”
    • Revised: “the new breed of television reporters,” “advertisers,” “hard-hitting print journalists,” “horror flicks,” “TV movies of the week,” “sitcoms,” “national public radio,” “Top 40 bop-til-you-drop…”
    • Original: “is, are, was, to be” or “to do, to make”
    • Revised: any great action verb you can concoct: “to generate,” “to demolish,” “to batter,” “to revolt,” “to discover,” “to flip,” “to signify,” “to endure…”

    Use your own words in thesis statements; avoid quoting. Crafting an original, insightful, and memorable thesis makes a distinct impression on a reader. You will lose credibility as a writer if you become only a mouthpiece or a copyist; you will gain credibility by grabbing the reader with your own ideas and words.

    A well-crafted thesis statement reflects well-crafted ideas. It signals a writer who has intelligence, commitment, and enthusiasm.


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